Feminist Marketing Tool #816: How to Audit Your Brand Photos for White Supremacy and White Beauty Norms (And Create Different Imagery!)
How white women entrepreneurs can resist and dismantle white supremacy in their own businesses and marketing
White women entrepreneurs: Let’s connect the dots between white supremacy and our own marketing and business practices.
White supremacy isn’t ‘out there’ — it’s baked right into the beauty and lifestyle images we use on social media to get visible and drum up business.
Let’s get really personal and political about The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand.
The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand contributes to and benefits from white supremacy.
The first rule of The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand is be beautiful and show it.
Get professional, exceptionally flattering photos preferably in luxury locations — some version of this advice is often the first task in a business coaching program or even the first step in a new product launch.
We use our conventional, acceptable femininity and beauty – if we can access or signal such a thing — to get attention, gain audience and construct authority over other women.
But beauty norms in our culture are not universal.
They are specific. They’re white.
The widespread veneration of whiteness is why my black daughter gets told her natural hair is ugly and looks like a wig and why black women get job offers rescinded for having braids or sent home from work or school for wearing locs or their hair natural.
The reference point for beautiful and professional in our culture is a particular kind of white woman.
So when white marketing and business coaches use beauty, heterosexuality and glamorous photoshoots signalling hyperfemininity and wealth as part of our outreach strategy **and then teach other white women this success model** we’re leveraging white supremacist beauty norms to create relationship, reputation, reach and revenue.
Those of who do this are participating in white supremacy and benefiting from it.
Even if that wasn’t the intention.
Intentionally or not, this is how white women entrepreneurs keep white supremacy in place.
Like Ivanka Trump, The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand is complicit.
I have been complicit.
I am complicit.
I remain complicit if I choose to do nothing.
It’s urgent and essential that we each look at our own practices and the way we benefit from white supremacy in your own marketing and business.
What can you do instead?
We’re all in the water so we are all wet.
But we have the power to diverge and do it differently.
If we’re committed to doing our part to end white supremacy, we’ve got to look in the mirror and make changes.
Create Change by Using DIFFERENT Imagery
Whenever I write this, or teach this, what often rises up inside of people listening is that they think I want pretty white women to become invisible. To dull their shine. To stop using professional photos or selfies and disappear.
I do not want white women entrepreneurs to be less visible.
Women’s stories, lives, and ability to generate wealth have historically been suppressed in our culture, so it’s important that we resist that and change it.
But white women entrepreneurs don’t have to automatically default to displaying conventional white femininity and beauty as a marketing device.
We can use our images to subvert that imperative and norm.
We can turn up the volume on the stories and values we want to DELIBERATELY convey.
I want us to use imagery, because imagery is powerful.
I want us to use selfies because I do want us to be visible.
I want us to use professional photos because photos are a necessary asset in ANY business, not just a woman-owned brand.
And for those of us white women who diverge from the narrow limits of conventional femininity — disabled, fat, butch etc — portraying yourself photos can be a powerful tool because just by existing and refusing to invisible you’re resisting the narrow limits of those beauty norms.
Important to note: I hear from white women, a lot, about how black women entrepreneurs and femmes are presenting images of black beauty and black girl magic, and why is it different for them? Why aren’t I calling them Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brands and critiquing them for doing that?
It’s important to use the historical, present and cultural context as the backstop for this.
Historically, in the United States, black women were deprived of the resources to display femininity (which usually means long straight hair, expensive clothes, and the ability to signal leisure and freedom from work) and the beauty norms were fundamentally white, so they weren’t considered beautiful by the overculture.
That is not ancient history. That is current reality.
Black women have job offers rescinded when an employer discovers they have braids. Black girls and women get sent home from school and work for wearing their hair natural or in locs or braids. There are dress codes prohibiting black hairstyles. Black women’s hair is politicized but white women’s hair is considered neutral and the norm (nope: white women’s hair IS political — including mine). Black women are the least popular female group on dating apps. There is an established angry black women stereotype and ingrained misogynoir in our culture that ingrains a bias against black women by constructing them as unfeminine and unattractive AND constructs white femininity as the acceptable, desirable norm.
So when black women deliberately claim and signal beauty, something else is going on.
It’s a fist in the air. They’ve been excluded from the beauty norms, the norms of conventional (white) femininity and even the ‘professional woman’ or success archetypes in our culture, across time AND currently.
By claiming and displaying style and beauty, black women are often disrupting and dismantling white supremacist beauty norms.
That is our shared, intersectional project.
But white women who can access the conventional femininity and white beauty norms of our culture navigate it differently than black women and women of colour who have been excluded from it and get punished by it.
Pretty, thin, cis-gendered women of colour navigate it differently than their trans sisters.
Trans women with pretty privilege navigate it differently than trans folks who don’t “pass” or have pretty privilege.
It’s important to attend to those differences and pay attention to the context in order for us to parse the impact. We can work on a shared project — dismantling white supremacy — using different tools and approaches. Intersectionality is essential.
(Read Janet Mock’s essay on pretty privilege.)
For white women who are thin, who are pretty, who are young, who are heteronormative and able bodied — in other words, those white women who more easily fit into the white standards of feminine beauty — yes, of course you can use your photos and imagery and be visible in a powerful, culture-making way. It just takes pausing to build your analysis, some creativity and disruptive thinking.
Strategies + Practices for Creating Brand Imagery That INTERRUPTS Patriarchal White Supremacy (Rather than Perpetuating It)
In case it helps you to see a concrete example of this, here’s what I did, as pretty, blonde fat white woman.
- I did get a photo shoot — the first one EVER.
- But before I did that, I specifically figured out what poses convey conventional femininity
- I googled “posing guides” and watched for what photographers recommended about which poses convey conventional femininity — this became my baseline of what NOT to do
- I created a pinterest board of ‘feminine’ poses so I could see the patterns, and then I created a second pinterest board of poses that diverged from that pattern
- I then made a list of desired shots that diverged from the conventionally feminine poses. I gave them to my photographer AND I shared these boards with her to so she could see, tangibly, what I wanted and did NOT want.
- I made a pinterest board of images of white women leaders and then I looked for patterns in those. I saw pictures at the beach, on luxury vacations, in meadows, outside in flowing dresses or on stage in fitted dresses (almost always dresses), lots of high heels and really composed luxurious interiors, in front of status objects, wearing status clothing. Now I had a baseline of the signals that manufacture authority and convey conventional white femininity and white professionalism: purses, shoes, maxi dresses, high heels, luxurious locations, locations signalling leisure and travel. Now I knew what the automatic default signals were and I could avoid them.
- Now that I knew what to avoid — the default signals of The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand — I had to invent my own signals, my own symbols. Instead of wearing the white woman leader uniform of a sheath dress + heels, I tried to select objects for my photos that had secret meanings for me (I learned this from Frida Kahlo’s body of work) or intersected with a lineage I wanted to join (black turtlenecks mean something in countercultural traditions). Renee Magnusson is a holistic life coach/style consultant and she did an ‘adorn’ session with me to help figure out the objects and styles that could tell the story **I** DELIBERATELY wanted to tell, rather than falling into the default of me in a maxi dress in front of the eiffel tower or on a beach or in a meadow (which is one of the default imagery strategies of the female lifestyle empowerment brand).
- After you get the photos, you could take them up a notch by turning them into mixed media works of art. Check out Natalyn Nails Bradshaw because she is doing super interesting things to your photos to help bring out those messages and stories you deliberately want to tell. She paints over top them, adds effects — it’s powerful (Message her on FB for more info). This also helps you extend and repurpose your images and get more mileage out of them. You can use the original photo on your website and the arted-up photo on social media (or vice versa, or both). One of my clients has a really unconventional healing practice and struggles to articulate what she does, and Natalyn applied all these magical effects on top of her pro photos, and it’s instantly clear: her healing is inexplicable, ordinary magic. That’s the power of imagery.
- Vivienne McMaster of Be Your Own Beloved has courses about how to take selfies that help you see yourself differently — NOT through the lens of the male gaze or the archetype of The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand. Her work helps us unlearn the social conditioning distorting our own self-perceptions and lives. This might be great pre-work or foundational work to do to help inform the way you make media and share media in your online platform. I think this kind of work can help us deliberately, creatively and significantly shift our narratives and beauty norms in the media WE are producing.
And that is what I want us to consider and try to do in our photos: invent our own symbols and tell our REAL stories rather than using the shorthand of our white supremacist culture.
In other words: create your own visual language
So yes, show up and be visible online.
Yes, use selfies.
Yes, get professional photos.
Just predefine the story you want to tell and the values you want to convey.
And then, instead of defaulting to the visuals of The Female Lifestyle Empowerment Brand, deliberately choose, invent and use your own symbols to do that.
I feel like that’s playing bigger rather than smaller, and shining our lights brighter rather than dimming.
Having to play by the rules of a patriarchal, white supremacist game that we reject is playing small and dulling our shine.
But taking control and telling the stories we want to tell, using symbols and imagery that we make and that we define: that’s power. That’s change. That’s culture-making.
And that makes us stand out…which is the point of getting these photos in our businesses, in the first place.
And that’s what we can do, as committed culture-makers and entrepreneurs with callings. It just takes a little creative ingenuity and a commitment to getting a lot more politically savvy.
We’ve got some learning and unlearning to do.
The way each of has the power to be culture makers, using whatever we’ve got (including our social media, our marketing, our careers and our daily lives) is one of the things I obsess about and write about in my Sunday Love Letters. They go out every week by email. If you’d like to receive them, yes please! You can sign up here.